Fiddler on the Roof: Theater review by David Cote
Although the titans Zero Mostel, Jerome Robbins and Harold Prince are reflexively linked to this 1964 classic, there’s another, uncredited, father of Fiddler on the Roof. It’s Marc Chagall, the painter whose flying violinists inspired the title. During the development of Fiddler (when it was still called Tevye), director-choreographer Robbins approached Chagall to do the set and costumes. The artist couldn’t commit, but his spirit lingered.
Now, in Bartlett Sher’s magnificent, life-affirming revival, the Chagallian gift of levitation extends not just to an airborne fiddler (in a purple coat straight out of Green Violinist) but also to the very buildings of Anatevka, which designer Michael Yeargan suspends in midair. The image is dreamy yet cautionary, evoking a feeling of carefree weightlessness but also serving as a reminder that our little lives can be uprooted and blown to the wind at any moment.
Such rich ambivalence runs through much of Sher’s elegant and deeply satisfying staging, which might have taken a page from Wonder of Wonders, Alisa Solomon’s cultural history of Fiddler. She notes that “the show’s essential gesture is dialectical: It looks backward and forward, favors both individual and community needs…bewails and celebrates.” Sher devises a frame to underscore our distance from the musical—and its source, stories by Sholem Aleichem. A man (Danny Burstein) in a red parka walks onstage reading Tevye’s opening lines from a book: “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof.” Off comes the coat, and Burstein swaggers center stage as long-suffering, God-fearing, joke-cracking dairyman Tevye for “Tradition.” Thus Burstein and Sher project Tevye into our century: We are all heritage tourists in the old country, meditating on what has been lost and what has been gained. It also makes us think of families who, at this very moment, are trekking miserably across borders.
For those who grumbled over the prettily designed but poorly cast Broadway Fiddler of 2004, this revival is splendidly acted. Jessica Hecht’s Golde is knotted and wiry, her voice hoarse from barking commands at a household of five irrepressible girls. The three oldest (Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell, Melanie Moore) drive the plot forward: Each falls in love with a man deemed unsuitable: a meek tailor (Adam Kantor), a penniless, radical scholar (Ben Rappaport) and, worst of all, a non-Jew (Nick Rehberger). Modern love struggles with ancient custom, as disaster looms in the wings. In the end, as Anatevka's denizens are seen leaving in silhouette—and Burstein's man in a red coat returns to take his place with them—you may glimpse a darker angle on tradition. It's not just the sacred rituals that hold families and villages together. The global, human tradition is this: exile, displacement, homelessness.
Revelatory direction, eloquent visuals and that sublime klezmer-inflected score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock—what more do you need? A great Tevye, and Burstein is nothing short of a miracle, finding the modern mensch in Tevye, as well as the hard-nosed, belief-bound peasant. Rather than bluster or roar his way through the role, Burstein has a delicate, almost motherly touch, kibbitzing with God for laughs and tearing out our hearts by the end. No other actor could juggle the comedy and tragedy masks with such style, such a bittersweet dance with tradition.—David Cote
Broadway Theatre (Broadway). Book by Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Bartlett Sher. With Danny Burstein, Jessica Hecht. Running time: 2hrs 50mins. One intermission.
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